MysteryPeople Q&A with Don Winslow

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

This week fans of crime fiction or good fiction in general will be hitting bookstores in droves for Don Winslow’s eagerly awaited masterpiece (and our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month) The Force. This story – both intimate and epic – focuses on Denny Malone, a New York cop who heads up an elite unit and who’s corrupt practices catch up with him. The book gives a detailed view of today’s New York through police eyes. Don was kind enough to talk to us about the book and the world that inspired it.

 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Force shares some DNA with Seventies-era NYPD books and films like Serpico, Prince Of The City, and The Seven Ups. What was the main difference of the of the police force at that period and the post 9-11 one you write about?

Don Winslow: I was really influenced by both the books and the films of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City. They’re part of the reason I became a crime writer. In some ways, things haven’t changed – police work is still police work and cops are still cops. But 9/11 did change things, especially in New York City. As the primary target of that attack, the city shifted a lot of resources from organized crime to anti-terrorism. Because of that the Mafia, which had been on the verge of extinction, made something of a comeback. Another major change has been one that has impacted society as a whole – computer-generated data. Police have largely adopted the ‘metrics’ that we see in business and sports, using sophisticated crime statistics to assign personnel, patrols and other resources to high-crime areas. The other major change is also technologically driven – the rise of personal cameras in mobile phones. Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.

“Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.”

MPS: It may be unfair, but you’re often associated with Southern California. Did the New York setting effect your writing or the story any different?

DW: I don’t think it’s unfair, I love Southern California. However, I was born in New York, have worked in New York at various times during my life, usually on the street. So those streets and alleys are part of my DNA as a writer. I was on those streets long before I was on the beach. I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.

MPS: You really feel the lives and the world of these policemen. What kind of research did you do?

DW: In some ways I’ve been researching this book my whole life. I’ve worked with cops, hung out with cops, with their families. I used to frequent a few bars in New York where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into an off-duty cop. But specifically for the book I talked to cops, sat down for drinks and dinners. I went out on the streets with them. I listened to their stories, their frustrations, their victories and defeats, their hopes, their disappointments, their fears. I read a lot of books, a lot of journalism. And I spent time in New York, prowling the neighborhoods in which the book is set.

MPS: Denny is a character full of contradictions. As a writer, how do you approach a character like that, so they don’t read like inconsistencies?

DW: A cop’s life is full of contradictions. They both love and hate the public they serve. They’ll break the law to uphold the law. They’ll commit violence on some people to save others from violence. If they’re undercover, they often feel more connected to their targets than their bosses. Denny is more conflicted than most, but it’s the conflicts that make him interesting for a writer. I don’t find the conflicts difficult to write because internal conflict is part of the human condition. We always torn between our best and worst instincts, but it usually isn’t a simple matter of choosing good or evil. Sometimes we’re tempted to do ‘bad’ things on the service of a greater good – a constant struggle for cops. The difficult characters to write are the ones with no conflicts, no internal contradictions. They become monochromatic, robots. And I tend to push back against this demand for consistency. I think editors are more concerned about that than readers. Readers get it – people are complex, we do contradictory things. It drives me nuts when editors ask me, especially about a criminal character. “Why would he do that? It makes no sense?” Prisons are full of people who have done things that make no sense. Believe, I’ve talked with a lot of them. I’ve knows guys who escaped when they had literally a few weeks left to serve. You ask them why and they shrug. I know one who robbed a gas station on his way home from prison, twenty minutes after he’d been released. Why? Shrug.

“I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.”

MPS: The main drug in the book is heroin, which is coming back. Has the return of the old narcotic changed the narcotics trade at all?

DW: Yeah, ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. The heroin trade is the same as it was before in the sense that it relies on prohibition to produce a profit. So when marijuana was universally illegal, it was a profitable drug to export. When it was legalized in several states, the profit went out of it and the cartels turned back to heroin, largely because the market had already been created by pharmaceutical opioids and the cartel could undercut by lowering price and increasing quality. The heroin trade has changed in the sense that the drug being produced now is more potent than it was before. An addict can get high for less of the drug and less money, but the danger lies in the heightened danger of overdose. Also, the cartels are competing to raise the potency of their product, so they’re increasingly mixing in fentanyl – increasing the potency by a factor of fifty –and other synthetic drugs. In the past few months, for instance, we’re seeing elephant tranquilizers mixed with heroin. So an addict who thinks that he or she is shooting one product might be shooting something much stronger, which is why we’re seeing an explosion in the number of overdose fatalities. The current chaos in the Mexican drug world, a by-product of the demise of Joaquin Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, means that there will be no product consistency (as we saw, for instance, with methamphetamine when the cartel took it over) for the foreseeable future.

MPS: What do you hope people who read The Force take away about the police?

DW: It goes back to your question about contradictions. Society demands that police do contradictory things: We want perfect security at the same time that we want absolute privacy; we want the police to protect us from vicious people by using the techniques of saints; we want them to enforce some laws and ignore others; we want them to be incorruptible in a sea of corruption. The contradictory demands are impossible.
I hope that readers see that the demands have a real effect – cop genuinely feel things, (even as they’re forced to pretend that they don’t) they take their work home with them. Day after day they deal with the worst parts of our society, they do the things that we don’t want to do, and it takes a toll.

You can find copies of Winslow’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE FORCE by Don Winslow

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780062664419I’ve often said Don Winslow dances with his readers. With both ease and flair he moves us through a story, no matter how complex the plot or dark the subject matter, leaving us back in our world entertained and exhilarated. For his latest, The Force, it feels like a samba with intricate, nuanced moves that he leads us through at a quick tempo.

He places us in the point of view of Denny Malone, leader of an elite New York City police unit, often referred as The Force on the streets, tasked with getting drugs, guns, and gangs off the streets of Manhattan North with few questions asked.

A major bust just put them in the headlines, at the cost of one of their men. What the public doesn’t know about Denny and his unit is the bust wasn’t on the up-and-up, they’re on the take from rival dealers, and the Force has a piece of several different pies. When he’s caught in a shady deal with a lawyer on Christmas day, an ambitious prosecutor and a couple of feds pressure him to act as an informant. Denny agrees, as long as he doesn’t rat on any cops. The book covers roughly half a year, centered around Christmas, Easter, and The Fourth Of July, as gang retribution, city politics, and Denny’s personal life put him in a tighter and tighter corner where his loyalties to his men are tested to the brink.

Captivated by Winslow’s skill as a writer and his understanding of themetics, we follow this challenging protagonist step by questionable step. He gives us a sense of Denny’s virtues (such as organizing turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving) and his love for others moments before we delve into his dark vices. To call Denny complicated is an understatement – from the relationships with his estranged wife and his drug-addicted nurse girlfriend to the contradictions of his job and the hustles he pulls with it, Denny’s morality has more shades of gray than the romance section. The Force and his loyalty to it are the only things that provide anything close to clarity for him.

We stick with Denny through his trials and tribulations, not rooting for him to beat them, but to open his eyes to the life he has created for himself. Winslow uses the deceits and politics of others to hinder and further blind him, instead of simply creating a larger evil he can look innocent in comparison to. Suspense comes from us wanting Denny to understand the evil in himself and rectify.

As always Winslow gives us a layered world of color, detail, and distinction to move through. Jazz and hip hop clubs, gansta’ rap moguls, corruptible activist preachers, and a mafia making a comeback are only part of the sprawling concrete jungle kingdom Denny resides over as a lion king surrounded by other predators. Winslow’s meter captures its rhythm and his to-the-heart prose professes his and the character’s love for their city.

The Force taps into the police culture both in its social and personal elements. We follow The Force on their “Bowling Night”, where they let off steam and they dress to the nines for an evening of drinking, dining, and high-end prostitutes. The contradictions hit a personal level when Big Monty, an African-American cop on The Force, tells Denny and the men how he fears his son being shot by a fellow officer.

The Force is a Seventies-style Sydney-Lumet-directed cop story, dropped into the streets of today, that prove not to be that different, and given an epic sweep. I breezed through the first four hundred pages, turning them to the the story’s quick rhythms, then rationing and savoring the last eighty, not wanting it to end. Thanks for the dance, Don.

The Force comes out June 20th. Pre-order now!

Don Winslow Calls In to Hard Book Club Discussion of THE CARTEL

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Hard Word Book Club kicks off the new year with a mammoth book that will easily go down as one of the best crime novels of the decade, and possibly of the century. Don Winslow’s The Cartel got much acclaim in 2015 with its detailed and emotional look at the drug wars of the new millennium. To make this truly an event, Mr. Winslow has agreed to call into our discussion.

The Cartel works as both a stand-alone and sequel to his equally superb The Power of the Dog, with DEA agent Art Keller, coming out of retirement when his nemesis Adan Berra (based on real life narco El Chapo) breaks out of prison. Several others on both sides of the border get drawn into their vendetta with each other. Winslow draws from many real life incidents and people in this harrowing novel of money, violence, indifference, and corruption that can crush and entire society. This is a brutal book that pulls no punches.

We wanted to announce this book as soon as we could, since it is a little over 600 pages. We will be meeting on Wednesday, January 25th, at 7PM, on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off in-store for those planning to attend.

You can find copies of The Cartel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Shotgun Blast from the Past: THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE by Don Winslow and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM by Chester Himes

Today we bring you a special double Shotgun Blast from the Past, profiling two classic hardboiled crime novels – The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, first published in 2006, and Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes, first published in 1965. 

The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow

9780307277664Frank Machianno is an upstanding member of the community on the San Diego pier. To those who can remember far back, like Dave White, the cop buddy he surfs with, he was Frankie Machine, an enforcer during the Mafia’s last heyday. Through a very bad day for Frankie that reflects on a violent life, Don Winslow shows how you can’t put that past past behind you, in his character driven mob novel The Winter Of Frankie Machine.

Read More »

The Hard Word Book Club takes on Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG

9781400096930

The Hard Word Book Club kicks off the year with a book that has turned out to be very topical. In The Power Of The DogWinslow looks at the history of the war on drugs in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The character of Adán Barrera, a powerful drug lord, is based on the recently recaptured El Chapo. You could say Barrera is the villain, but there are few innocents in this book.

“Everyone is rendered vividly in a story that entertains as well as enrages…”

The main protagonist is Art Keller. Recently returned from working in Vietnam with the CIA, he heads to Mexico as an agent of the newly formed DEA. Keller initially befriends Barrera, who is simply the nephew of a drug lord. As Barrera takes over the cartel and builds his empire, Keller goes after him; the two pull several people into their battle, including a crusading priest, a high dollar call girl, and an Irish-American hit-man. Everyone is rendered vividly in a story that entertains as well as enrages.

This is a book that provides a lot to discuss in style, story, and politics, so come ready. We will be meeting on Wednesday, January 27th, on the third floor at 7PM. The book is 10% off at the registers to those planning to attend. it’s over five hundred pages, so get started, but don’t worry – this action-packed novel will go quicker than you might think!

You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Hard Word Book Club meets the last Wednesday of each month to discussed hardboiled fiction and noir. 

Scott’s Top Ten of 2015

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

If there was a common thread through the best books of 2015, it was ambition. Authors stretched themselves by taking on large subjects or writing something much different, or taking their series characters down a different path. All of these authors raised the bar for themselves and leaped over it.


hollow man1. Hollow Man by Mark Pryor

Pryor’s smart use of point of view puts us in the head of Dominic – Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath – who gets involved with a robbery and to continue to tap into his darker nature when things go bad. One of the freshest and best neo-noirs to come down the pike.


the cartel2. The Cartel by Don Winslow

Winslow’s sequel to The Power Of The Dog reignites the blood feud between DEA agent Art Keller and cartel head Adán Barrera in epic fashion to show the disastrous effect of the war on drugs in Mexico. A book that both enrages and entertains.Read More »

If you liked THE CARTEL, by Don Winslow…

  • Recommendations from Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

the cartelOne of the biggest books this year was Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a dark, violent, yet human look at the drug war and its effect on Mexico. For more crime fiction covering Mexico, past and present, I suggest these books.


9780615916545Federales by Chris Irvin

This novella about a former Mexican agent protecting a mayor who has taken on the cartels is the solemn and moving chamber piece to The Cartel‘s symphony. Both use the actual politician, Maria Gorriesta Santos, as a template for a major character. You can find copies of Federales on our shelves and via bookpeople.com


9781489561541Quick by Billy Kring

If The Cartel didn’t give you enough grim violence on the border this one will. The Quick has one of the scariest villains I’ve read in the past few years and I read a lot of books with scary dudes. You can find copies of Quick on our shelves and via bookpeople.com


9780805091298The Return by Michael Gruber

When a book editor gets a mysterious diagnosis, he fills a van full of guns, grabs his loose canon buddy from Vietnam, and heads south of the border to settle some scores. A rich prose style and engaging characters give us a look at life and death in Old Mexico. You can find copies of The Return on our shelves and via bookpeople.com